Please help improve my vocubulary for how I feel
January 23, 2021 2:20 PM   Subscribe

There are a lot of feelings, sensations, and observations that I don't have much vocabulary for! Can you please suggest vocabulary to describe how you feel, when you feel things that are kind of unique?

I find I have difficulty being clear and specific in describing how I feel. Here are some examples of things I've been rubbish at communicating:

The other day I said I was upset, but I meant it in the "I've got my thoughts and feelings jumbled and need to sort them out," not "I'm angry."

Or, I'm tired in a way that doesn't feel sleepy and doesn't feel worn down but just feels..... stretched.

Or how about, I'm absolutely displeased with this xyz, but it matters so little to me that I would be upset if anyone were to become less happy because I'm unhappy.
I'd especially like to hear ones that you came up with yourself and tend to be useful, even if the person you're communicating with needs to be clued in first.
posted by rebent to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I use "discombobulated" for general unspecified bad/confused/off feeling. Often it's useful to say "I feel discombobulated", the person close to me knows that that means I don't know why I feel off, and can either not react, which is useful when you know there's nothing "wrong" per se but you still feel off, or can ask like did I eat anything recently/drink water/other executive function thing I might not have considered. Often it's like... of course you feel bad you've been glued to your desk sitting like a pretzel for 1.5 hours with no break. But it needs someone else to tell me that sometimes!

For myself I find the words anhedonia and avolition useful. They come from diagnostic criteria for depression and it's helpful to me to say to myself: I am experiencing anhedonia and/or avolition and that's just how it is, rather than getting into a huge spiral of WHY do I feel so flat/down/totally affectless/tired/unwilling/uninspired etc. and WHY can't I be different. Oh, it's just those symptoms, they'll pass on of their own accord probably, I don't need to get caught in a mental loop about them.
posted by Balthamos at 2:27 PM on January 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

I was amazed that I was about 50 years old before I heard of an emotion wheel.
It has done wonders for helping me figure out exactly what I am feeling.
There are different types of wheels, but the one I gravitated to was the Junto Wheel.
Here's a google image search for emotion wheel.
I hope this helps!
posted by Bill Watches Movies Podcast at 2:34 PM on January 23, 2021 [22 favorites]

If you are looking for more specific words to describe how you are feeling, here is one of many emotion circle charts where you start with the general category and work your way out to a more specific word. When I was teaching they were helpful for students to use in writing or speaking with specificity. Now that you know the term emotion circle chart, there are many other versions just a short search away. I hope that is helpful.
posted by seasparrow at 2:35 PM on January 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

You can always say something like "I need time to process this."
Apathetic? Weary or out of gas?
If it is a more complex emotion that I am feeling, sometimes coming up with an example in literature or film/TV can help me describe what is going on. Have you ever seen the emotions wheel?
Also, there's nothing wrong with using longer sentences rather than single, specific vocabulary words to express yourself!
posted by gemutlichkeit at 2:35 PM on January 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

On a slightly different track, I have found that reading fiction where the plot involves at least one character in emotional turmoil helpful for this - it's not necessarily a quick solution though.
posted by coffeecat at 3:12 PM on January 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

Some thoughts:
- concrete words I would use for your three examples: out of sorts, frazzled, stretched thin, not my choice but not a big deal
- do they absolutely have to be single word descriptions? Because you've described pretty clearly what you mean, and if it's about making others understand, a sentence will do admirably. Clarity before brevity!
- which words will work also depends on who you're talking to (coworkers vs. friend vs. family)
- if you think in images, try similies ("I feel like one of those clouds that's stretched so thin it's slowly disappearing")
posted by Omnomnom at 3:18 PM on January 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

For your first example, I use "muddled," as in EM Forster. His characters are really good at getting themselves into emotionally complex situations and not quite knowing how to articulate themselves at first -- a lot of the character arcs of Room with a View and Howards End, in particular, are all about the characters learning to speak their truth first to themselves and then to those around them.
posted by basalganglia at 3:37 PM on January 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

Sometimes I describe my own emotions using words that describe weather conditions. This seems to get whatever I'm feeling across to whomever more readily for some reason. It might be that it's just easier as the language is slightly removed from literal descriptions of emotions, so it's less awkward.
posted by marimeko at 4:19 PM on January 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

I find lists like this to be helpful. If I can identify the category, I can read through the list to feel which word seems most true. Just labelling something and saying out loud "I feel X" can be enough to help it move through (rather than swirl around looking for an outlet). Even better if I can say "I feel X because Y happened" so maybe I'll ask myself "Why do I feel X?" in a five-whys kind of way until I feel the tightness around the feeling relax.
posted by kokaku at 4:45 PM on January 23, 2021

It's pithy, but I use the word "fuss" a lot for things like this. When I feel frustrated or agitated I just say "fuss! fuss! fuss!" and people in my life know what it means for me. Sometimes I even kind of lightly flail around while doing so - it feels good to put a physical context to my mental agitation. Discombobulated is a good synonym!
posted by kinsey at 6:42 PM on January 23, 2021

Read more. I have always said that a good writer is a good reader. Read what others say. Understanding the images of good writers will help you articulate your own thoughts.
posted by SPrintF at 7:30 PM on January 23, 2021

As an autistic, I sometimes get what I guess people call brain fog but also a related state that I hadn't stumbled into a term for, in which I feel like my thoughts are present but frozen in place; I call it brain foam, because it's as if my thoughts are immobilized by Instapak. I once had an extreme version of this (which also was a kind of decision paralysis) in which I could see every possible path/decision I could take for the day all at once as if none were more real or likely than any other; I told people it was like being an uncollapsed autistic wave function.
posted by bixfrankonis at 9:24 PM on January 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

Or, I'm tired in a way that doesn't feel sleepy and doesn't feel worn down but just feels..... stretched.

Yeah, I think I recognize this feeling, if that helps. I call it feeling "close to the surface", everything is a bit delicate and and easily disrupted and my limit for tolerating anything unexpected or difficult is extremely low.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 1:15 AM on January 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

You might find this word association network visualiser useful here. In the backend is a large semantic network formed from people playing the word association game (which you can do here, if you want). If you type a word at the prompt it will show the words that tend to be associated with it. It's a great way of thinking of related words and getting at subtle nuances of meaning. Also a lot of fun if you're a word nerd. :)
posted by forza at 4:37 PM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

For small negative emotions that are fun to kvetch about, but you don't want others to become upset, I like to misspell my rants over text, as in:


Gets the point across but makes you sound like a grumpy pet who's learned to type, and clearly signals to others that they can just nod sympathetically or rib you a little.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:03 PM on January 25, 2021

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